He was told not to sing it. It was too risky, not appropriate, morally bereft. It tolerated drinking. Worse, it wouldn’t sell and could tarnish his image. Jim Denny, the manager of the Grand Ole Opry, told him this and so did legendary producer Fred Rose. He knew better though. They weren’t the ones standing on makeshift stages all over the southland in school auditoriums, town halls, and fairgrounds. They didn’t sing from flat truck beds and look out over the people nipping from flasks and sharing brown papered bottles. They didn’t see the honkytonks at closing time their tables littered with empty glasses. He drank and his people drank. The song would sell.
It was released in October of 1953 and today is the anniversary of when it hit number one on the country charts 32 days later.
There Stands the Glass is a love song, no doubt, but often I think it’s heard as a long song to booze. It’s not. It’s the purest kind of heartache song. Everything is revealed, the singer is not oblivious to his pain or even particularly ashamed of it. He simply wishes it gone and has not the power or choice within himself to make it so. The drink is just a tool and it works.
The reluctance to release a song like this can be traced back to our Puritan roots. We’ve long see-sawed between teetotalism and binge drinking. There’s a Carnivalesque aspect to it as we indulge in our base and then pull back and gleefully whip ourselves straight. The song fits into a small sub-genre of honkytonk that began with Floyd Tillman’s 1949 classic cheating song Slippin’ Around. Drinking songs, cheating songs, leaving songs were nothing knew, but always seemed to have a coda at the end where the sins caught up to the singer. These new kind of songs however refused to take moral stands. They are not amoral so much as they leave the listener to make their own choices, to stumble around in their own uncertainty, to rationalize or discriminate. They did not justify but also did not judge. They were wholly modern and sound like musical cousins to the pulp novels of James M. Cain and William Lindsay Gresham. They feel like raw footage, these things happen, here they are, if there’s hell to pay it’s not from fate’s snare.
That’s not to say a fateless world becomes one without consequence. Here the singer waits. He hasn’t and doesn’t actually drink in the song; the glass is before him, it’s to be his first one today. There’s a reluctance to let go of the lost love as much as a desire to dull the pain. The singer struggles with the consequences of lost memories. How can you love when the heart is dulled? How long until the ache grows to be too much to bear? How long until the glass is lifted?
There Stands the Glass, Webb Pierce
Post Script ~ There Stands the Glass was written by Mary Jean Shurtz. She wrote many songs, perhaps none as great as the barroom classic though. Just for kicks (and because I love maudlin talkies) check out her recitation song originally recorded by T. Texas Tyler:
Dad Gave My Dog Away, T. Texas Tyler
Finally, there is a great story about country singer Red Thompson staying at Mary Jean’s home in 1949. For those of you who have ever put up a touring musician you’re part of grand tradition. You can read it on the fine Hillbilly-Music website.